Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
WHY THIS MATTERS
Asmall farm is as much a proposition, a cultural idea, as an actual place. The idea of organic farming, of sustainable environmental stewardship, is a model for responsible living, for doing something necessary and grounded with your time. There’s nothing facile or superfluous about it. There aren’t a lot of neurotic farmers out there: You just can’t be type A high-strung when you’re working with all the vexing unknowables of the natural world. The work you do is purposeful and real, removed from the virtual ether of ones and zeroes. A hoe hitting the dirt resonates in ways that a finger swiping a track pad or screen never can. Farming will change how you think and will reorder your values and priorities. “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us,” said G. K. Chesterton, and despite all the admirable gains of technology, the carbon universe that lies within all of us wants a connection to realities that are meaningful and deep, beyond progress, beyond ourselves, even.
By farming and growing food, we learn to listen to worlds outside of our own and begin to think and imagine like plants. We start to sympathize with their needs and desires, to nurture and protect them. Our dreams become lucid and almost photosynthetic as we tune in to the plant world’s seasonal patterns of growth and decline, to their strange and sentient cellular networks. It’s arcane science, to be sure—the subtle whispering between cells—but the most poetic and meaningful things usually are.
Even some of the nutrients we add to the farm come from deep, otherworldly places. There are times at Stonegate when you might feel as though you’re walking through the salty savor of low tide. We spray with an organic fish and seaweed fertilizer that leaves plants high on ancient minerals unlocked from the bones and bodies of fish, from seagreen ribbons of brine and whatever else the mysterious tide brings up. This nutrient-rich emulsion is spread across the farm as a foliar feed, where it works its slow, deep, delicious magic.
NOTES FROM THE WONDERGROUND
Farming under the Influence
September—elliptical month, month of transitions—and the farm is truly, madly beautiful at the moment: late fruit hanging ripe and slack, sun jetting through the thinning trees, the primal clarity of the light.
The whole place seems high on itself, and at levels well beyond the legal limit. It doesn’t help that I photograph food and gardens for a living (and what is a farm if not a food garden?), so I’m tuned in and turned on to all this beauty at insanely high decibels.
Once the visual dopamine pulses, it takes me and wastes me and I’m left to photograph and farm under the influence (an agricultural misdemeanor in most states). They don’t call us Stoned-Gate Farm for nothing.
If I’m not careful, my license to farm might be revoked or, worse, I may be sent to ag rehab, where compulsive locavores, foodies, and organic microfarmers sit in sad, slump-shouldered circles and come clean about their obsessions.
Stonegate was restored and designed with the camera in mind, with frameable views and an attention to the pattern language of agricultural land and outbuildings that create opportunities for image making. It’s been a long process, more than 15 years now, of creating a visual dialogue with this place, and just when I think there can’t possibly be another pixel’s worth, more images get made. Apparently, if you don’t photograph it, it never existed. Spooky.
It’s an occupational hazard to fall hard for a farm. Once it’s got hold of you, it’s like a badger and won’t let go until it crushes bone, or spirit, or energy. If you’re lucky (and luck is as much a part of farming as planning and planting), you get to the end of the season, as we have, and are truly thankful for your magical and productive piece of earth.
This late-season buzz is the farm’s way of deeply imprinting, before the big chill of winter, how important it will be to start all over again next spring. Like any organism, its MO is just to keep on keepin’ on.
My MO is to keep this small farm going strong, in all of its permutations. Besides creating a venue for exquisite organic food, the broader aim of a CSA farm is education and inspiration, about turning people on to eating locally and well, and about building an audience for sustainability.
Ironically, when I lose a CSA member because they’ve decided to grow their own, I feel as though I’ve done my job. We’ll continue to serve it up, and we plan to bring it on year after year—unless, of course, we lose you to your own backyard.
Mornings in the flower farm are an experience to be savored, particularly in September, with its long, low shadows and luxuriant growth. Before the sleep of winter, the farm is out to make a lasting impression.
“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient,” said Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift from the Sea. “Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.” So, too, with farming. Patience and faith are persistent mantras—patience in bringing seed to leaf and fruit, faith that it will all actually work and that weather and pests won’t undo you.
I love bringing the tidal sea back to the farm, the same sea that once moved as glaciers and created the very topsoil I’m cultivating. It quickens the biodynamic pulse of the place and deepens its wonder.
There is a mycorrhizal consciousness in the soil just beneath us, a kind of mystery that brings us back to growing, year after year, for the extraordinary awe of it, and maybe even—by extension—to broaden our understanding of what the larger earth needs. By thinking like both plant and planet, we tune in to the kind of stewardship that realigns us with the natural world. We allow ourselves to be shaped by the places we inhabit, as much as we shape them.
If you begin to imagine farming and growing food as an art form, where your aspirations move beyond the supply and demand of feeding yourself and others and into the realm of aesthetics, where gorgeous heirloom vegetables, fruit, and flowers fill the canvas between fencerows each season as a kind of delicious landscape painting, then you begin to cultivate beauty as well. And beauty is a fundamental human need, as essential as breath.
Beauty isn’t just a visual sensation, of course; it informs and shapes how our faculties of smell, taste, hearing, and touch interpret the world. The senses constantly share and interact. It’s said, for example, that the first bite is taken with the eyes. Other senses do their part, to be sure, but it turns out you eat as much with your visual brain as you do with your tongue and that how things taste is a multisensory process, with the eyes playing a much bigger part in taste perception than previously thought. According to Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, “Half the brain is visual in some sense, versus just a few percent for overall taste senses. So in cortical real estate, vision is always going to win.” It’s no wonder, then, that color and form shape so much of how we experience food, and why presentation actually makes food taste empirically better; perception is reality. Just the act of growing your own food, the story of that seed transforming itself from a mere speck into something wholesome and delicious under your care, will transform your experience of eating it. Taste and flavor are intimately connected to your own narrative, your own memory and emotions. Farming food organically clearly ramps up its nutrient value and lessens its environmental debt, but if you farm for beauty as well, with attention paid to aesthetics and form, what you grow will be delicious both to the eyes and tongue. This is why blind taste tests miss the point; taste is never blind.
“Everybody needs beauty,” said the naturalist John Muir. “Places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” The beauty of the farm and garden is that they are never finished; never matted and framed and hung on a wall. Each season is an embellishment on the last, another stroke on a vibrant and nourishing canvas that is never complete.
The art forms that seem to last and remain relevant are those that mark a moment of change in perception, that break through the old way of seeing and challenge what is with what could be, encouraging us to think. A small organic farm can be a work of political art, particularly in a time of fractious food politics, co-opted supply, and compromised nutrition. You are not only farming for food, but you’re also using sustainable agriculture as an act of conscience and ecological resistance. By farming in a nonfarm community—urban, residential, suburban—you are encouraging people to reconnect with where their food comes from and, by extension, to where nature is, which is powerfully important. Once food ceases to be some abstract commodity, with no apparent source or season, and becomes an understood and valued part of the ecosystem of everyday life, then you begin to tune in to the flow of your natural environment, and it regains value. “The earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair,” said Kahlil Gibran, and it remains so.